“TRUE CHARACTER can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is—the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.” – Robert McKee, STORY
As loathsome as it is to begin anything with a quote, it is worse to not use a fitting one when appropriate.
Jesse Marsch was once again under pressure before the ultimately unsuccessful second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal series against Chivas. The options were straightforward: stick to your system and play it safe with a traditional starting lineup or bring the team outside its comfort zone and push the attack with a player like Kaku who might not be fully integrated into the passing-lane blockage complexities of a gegenpress.
As he has done time and time again, Marsch opted for the safe path tactically. Morpheus offered him the blue and the red pill, and he automatically swallowed down the former before being offered a glass of water to help it go down. If the New York Red Bulls were a movie, you would have turned it off because the protagonist chose not to push himself by making the bold, unexpected choice.
Sure, Marsch had his reasons for not playing Kaku against Chivas. As he told Kristian Dyer, those reasons boiled down to “mostly because [Kaku] is still integrating into the tactics… The understanding of roles, the ability to understand what each person’s role is on the day – that is why it was 20-1 in shots. It was not random. It was because we totally smothered a really good team and made the game our game.”
That’s a fair observation. On the one hand, the Red Bulls generated the lion’s share of scoring opportunities (heck, an entire pride of lions’ share of scoring opportunities), kept Chivas from scoring a backbreaking away goal, and looked like a strong and unlucky team.
On the other hand, Chivas advanced because most of said generated scoring opportunities were low percentage shots against a bunkered defense, there was no real pursuit of an away goal, and the Red Bulls were reduced to an “increasingly direct, aerial style of play” that hasn’t yielded anything positive since Anatole Abang began history’s saddest game of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? That “really good team” played exactly how it wanted to play regardless of its opponent’s tinkering (or lack thereof).
Miraculously, less than a week later, Marsch decided it is time to unleash Kaku. “It’s time to take the handcuffs off,” our protagonist heroically declared after a 3-1 win over the Montreal Impact.
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
The Six Million Dollar Man is going to play.
Unfortunately for many, this unshackling is too little, too late after yet another blown chance at attainable silverware. Sure, there’s still almost an entire season of soccer and three trophies on the table, but who’s to say the same turgid, safe, stoic, boring, expected, average, dogmatic lineup choices won’t be made again when a similar option is on the table? Will the stakes be as high – and therefore as revealing of a manager’s true character or nature – as the CONCACAF Champions League ever again?
Marsch thrives during the regular season because he can prepare his team for the long haul and his safe, mutual-fund tactical ideals will yield a higher Lipper average than those of his opposing managers. But that goes out the window in elimination matches when bold choices and big performances dictate a one- or two-off series.
“Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.” Starting Kaku would have conflicted with the club’s idealized tactics, but sometimes… actually almost always radical change is necessary for progress to be made.
If the Red Bulls find themselves in another crucial elimination match and Marsch is faced with another tough decision, hopefully he picks the bolder, unexpected option. It makes the story much more interesting and opens up the possibility for a much greater ending. Unfortunately, the opportunity for the greatest possible success may have already passed and won’t come around again for a very long time.